I remember it like it was yesterday.
My first day at St Jude’s Catholic Primary School in Perth, Western Australia. Two years ago our family had arrived from Kenya after spending years waiting to be granted refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
My parents were fleeing the civil war in Uganda that had taken casualties in our family. In some ways they didn’t want to leave but they did for us, their children.
The first two years were tough. I struggled with isolation, anxiety and nightmares.
We moved around early as we got our bearings before finally moving into middle class Australia. Middle class Australia in the early 1990s where my siblings and I were the only African family around for suburbs.
St Jude’s was my third school in two years and I was once again the new kid. The different kid. The only black kid. Again.
When the Year 3 recess bell rang on the first day, the boys and girls moved to their separate corners in the playground.
As I sat on the bench watching everything around me, one of the boys asked me if I wanted to play. I’d always loved sport and, even though I didn’t know what I was playing, I said yes.
It was Aussie Rules Football and it was my entry into Australian life.
More than two decades later it still remains the entry into Australian life for many refugees, particularly those in AFL-centric states.
That is the case for Scovia Anzoa and Akoor Dhelbai as told in the Guardian.
Scovia’s story eerily resembles that of my family. We came to Australia from northern Uganda via Kenya while Scovia make the journey from our neighbouring southern Sudan, via northern Uganda and Kenya.
Both girls play for the Butler Falcons, Australia’s first multicultural girls’ football team.
“It just lets people from different countries integrate into the Australian culture,” Akoor said.
“Playing football, I’ve made more friends, and people don’t look at me different [sic] ... because when I play, it’s not like they say, ‘Oh, she’s a refugee.’ They don’t know that about me, so they just see me as another human being playing AFL.”
Such is the power of sport.
The positive impact of sport is not just found in AFL, as witnessed by the University of NSW's School of Public Health and Community Medicine program Football United.
Established in 2006, Football United has assisted thousands of refugees transition into Australian society.
The brainchild of Dr Anne Bunde-Birouste, the program provides training and playing opportunities for refugee youth from war ravaged countries, as well as leadership, educational and vocational programs.
"We aim to build confidence and enable them to learn how to be confident within themselves and therefore within their community," said Dr Bunde-Birouste.
The program has been a success with many of the girls going on to graduate high school and even attend university. However, its success has been beyond the tangible.
"It enabled the girls to feel like they fit in at school because they engaged in football and that made them feel more a lot like their Australian counterparts."
"The change in their confidence is immediately noticeable," she stated. "And watching the girls blossom and just grow in really positive ways is just amazing."
I wholeheartedly agree with the positive effects. For those first few weeks at St Jude’s, playing “King of the Pack” at recess and lunchtime, I felt like I finally had a home.
There was no sense of other. I didn’t feel like the strange black kid, just the strange girl playing AFL with the boys. But I could deal with that.
That was the ultimate gift of sport. A sense of belonging to the new country that we had adopted and a feeling it had finally had adopted me.